PALO ALTO -- Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk announced Thursday that Tesla is making its vast array of technology patents available to the public for free, part of a bold move to spur development of electric vehicles in the face of climate change and create demand for Tesla's batteries.
Musk wrote in a blog post that Tesla has removed framed patents from the wall at the company's Palo Alto headquarters in the spirit of the "open source" movement and said Tesla won't initiate patent suits against "anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology." Tesla will continue to apply for patents going forward, he said, but only to protect itself from being hampered by patents taken out by others for the same technology.
"Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport," Musk wrote. "If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property land mines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal."
Tesla is known for its all-electric Model S sedan and is developing a Model X, a crossover SUV. The company plans to break ground this month on a "gigafactory" for batteries for electric vehicles and stationary energy storage products for homes, commercial businesses and utilities.
As of the end of last year, Tesla had been issued 203 patents and had more than 280 patent applications pending with the United States Patent and Trademark Office and internationally, according to the company's most recent annual report.
"Given that annual new vehicle production is approaching 100 million per year and the global fleet is approximately 2 billion cars, it is impossible for Tesla to build electric cars fast enough to address the carbon crisis," Musk wrote. "Our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced, but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world's factories every day."
Musk often has noted that electric vehicles remain a tiny fraction of overall auto production and that fewer than 1 percent of the 100 million vehicles sold each year are electric.
In a conference call with journalists, he spoke with increasing urgency about the need to act on climate change and expressed frustration with the patent system in general, saying it "is not ideally suited to fostering innovation."
"What we're doing is a modest thing, not an enormous thing," said Musk. "Look, we're just trying to be helpful. I don't think this hurts us."
Musk said executives from BMW visited Tesla on Wednesday to discuss ways to collaborate, particularly around infrastructure issues like Tesla's Supercharging stations. Currently, only Model S drivers can use Tesla Superchargers, but that could change.
Mark Lemley, a professor at Stanford Law School who teaches patent law, said Tesla's move, while largely unheard of in Detroit, comes from a Silicon Valley mindset of creating a "network effect" to further boost the adoption of disruptive products and grow the ecosystem of companies in the space. He noted that Android has become the dominant operating system in the smartphone market, while Apple's share has fallen, thanks in part to Google's decision to open source the Android platform.
"Musk is saying 'If you want to use our technology, we won't sue you.' That's a big deal," said Lemley. "It's also a huge indictment of the patent system. From a patent law perspective, we grant patents to encourage innovation. Now one of the most innovative companies in the world thinks the profitable thing for the company to do is give them away."
Alan Baum, who runs an auto industry research firm in West Bloomfield, Michigan, said Tesla is trying to make other automakers more comfortable with what Tesla is doing.
"Tesla is not threated by the other electric vehicles that are out there," said Baum. "It's an effort to get everyone more comfortable with EVs. You have to wonder if it's also an effort to sell more batteries from the gigafactory."
Tesla's stock remained largely unchanged Thursday as Wall Street digested the news; it closed at $203.52 and was down slightly in after-hours trading.
"We've been trained our whole lives to think that having a lot of patents is good," said Theo O'Neill, an analyst with Litchfield Hills Research. "Opening it up is counterintuitive."
Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.